Monday 10 February 2014

Why Don't Archaeologists Fight Looting?

Why don't archaeologists fight looting? Donna Yates is quoted as saying:
"I've been at it over a decade. Anything anyone does to get professionals involved falls flat.”

See her thought-provoking resource: " What archaeologists can (but usually don't) do to help reduce and regulate the illicit trade in cultural objects", Property of an Anonymous Swiss Collector, 10 February 2014. This is a very effective text which all archaeologists should rad and discuss, and its author has done a great job. Her eight points are: 
1. Contribute to the Trafficking Culture website (sic)
2. Make documenting of looting a permanent part of your archaeological project
3. Know the law…and follow it to the letter
4. Follow policy development and influence it
5. Help the press, talk to them…and never forget to mention threats to archaeology
6. Demand that your university have an archaeological ethics and law course
8. Step out of your area of focus and read what we publish
Three of these seem intended to boost the position of the Glasgow "Trafficking Culture" project, which the author of this text (understandably) sees as taking a central position. I think that should be tempered by suggesting that the concerned archaeologist needs to be thinking more about the institutional framework, what should come AFTER Glasgow (which is only temporarily funded and its position is not established by any policy or legislation, it is indeed a criminological initiative).

The author cautions that her list of 'action points' is not exhaustive, and here is scope for discussion with the Glasgow team.  I note one very striking omission, there is no mention of evangelising among collectors and dealers. Perhaps Donna Yates has the same opinion as me that these people are so stuck in their ways and unreflexive and unresponsive, that it's really not worth the effort. Maybe her point 7 (keep 'em at an arm's length) and four (change policy) deal with it. I'd suggest though that a revised  list should have a ninth action point - "outreach to collectors and dealers" (which basically could utilise the Glasgow website too).

A tenth point would be more interaction. Donna Yates' eight points are mostly focussed on the individual and what they can do individually in short term individual activities. I'd say a serious problem here is the lack of any substantial discussion of the issues actually involved between archaeologists and between archaeologists and the public (or the public and archaeologists if you like). The existence of a public heritage debate is taken as granted (not least in various English Heritage policy documents), but in fact if you try to find it, it is virtually non-existant. There are many issues which need discussion in the UK alone about the way we treat culture, the need to reform the Treasure Act (how?), export licensing procedure, regulate the open trading of illicit and potentially illicit antiquities, etc etc. Where are those discussions raging in the UK (or elsewhere) today? 

In Britain (and I suspect if truth were known, in the US too) archaeologists are afraid to confront metal detectorists. Readers may remember one of them who wrote some empty-headed platitudes about them on Twitter a couple of months back, and when challenged to explain what he meant, chickened out, but instead his mates had a go at the colleague who'd questioned the remarks. That is one small example, but it is the way this "debate" is going. Readers might also remember that attempts to use a government archaeological outreach Scheme's public forum as a medium for discussion were  recently scandalously categorised as "aggressively archaeological" and trolling. There are I am sure archaeologists out there who profoundly disagree with what I write here. Where are their comments, reactions, counterarguments? Where is this "debate"? If, as archaeologists we cannot openly discuss these issues between ourselves and in a public venue where is that debate?

So I'd add that as a tenth point to the Yates' Action Points, Get involved, start caring, get interactive. No single one of us (Lord Renfrew included) can actually make any difference alone, we can chip away at preconceptions individually, but to get real action, we need to speak with one voice - but to do that we need to decide what it is we want to happen and why, which involves discussing it, not sitting back and letting somebody else do it.

Vignette: Val Camonica rock art.  

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